Tour director training and opportunities

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 56 of the May 2016 issue.
An ElderTreks guide sharing the history of Dubrovnik with his tour group outside a wall of the Old City. Photo by Randy Keck

Almost every January, I have the opportunity to attend the annual Symposium of the International Tour Management Institute, or ITMI (625 Market St., Ste. 810, San Francisco, CA 94105; 800/442-4864, ITMI has been conducting its training courses since 1976 and is the largest and most highly regarded training institute for tour directors and guides in the US.

Attending Symposium provides me with the opportunity to get up to date with tour operators representing all facets of the travel industry. It also provides the chance to talk with ITMI graduates who have been working as tour directors for periods ranging from less than a year to more than 25 years. 

The “group tour” market, which, historically, has gone through many cycles, is currently prospering both in the United States and around the world. This applies to Americans and international visitors traveling within the US and to Americans traveling abroad. This growth in group travel has created a great demand and opportunity for trained tour directors.

Who are today’s tour directors?

Tour directors come from a wide variety of backgrounds and in ages ranging from 20s to 70s. Many are retired or semiretired from other occupations and professions and have backgrounds in the human services arena.

Typically, they share a common bond: a love for travel and the desire, in a leadership capacity, to share the experience of travel with others.

Tour director employment offers flexibility in that most tour directors can manage to work as little or as much as they wish after acquiring certification and some successful work experience. I meet tour directors who work, by choice, as little as three to four weeks per year and others who work in excess of 40 weeks each year, which is classified as full time. 

Some choose to work only in the area where they reside, coming in as step-on guides for day tours or for short-term multiday tours in their immediate region. Tour directing can be an ideal part-time occupation, with the opportunity to fuse the lifestyle with another career or leisure-time interests. 

Today, a much greater number of tour directors are over the age of 60, or even over 70, than in times past. Tour directing operates on the theory that age is relative, with individual physical and mental fitness being the prime components. Tour company employers well understand this.

The ITMI training experience

The ITMI training program is considered the gold standard by the wide variety of tour company owners who hire training-program graduates. Some companies hire only ITMI graduates. 

The ITMI training course is a 2-week, full-time, intensive immersion experience that is divided into two consecutive one-week components. Students must pass the first week of the course before they graduate and then pay for the second week. The course includes field training, which, in this case, means an on-the-road overnight trip.

In 2016, ITMI will conduct eight classes at their base of operations in San Francisco. Classes generally are limited to 25 students. The cost of the course is currently $1,950 for the first week and $1,950 for the second plus a $50 registration fee, for a total of $3,950. The ITMI website provides complete information regarding the tour director training course.

Employment opportunities

An all-important aspect of the training program is ITMI’s placement program for graduates. 

ITMI graduates have the opportunity to interview with some tour companies immediately upon graduation. A key component of the employment process for the majority of graduates is the Marketplace event at the annual ITMI Symposium. This is conducted the last week of January each year in a different location around the country. 

Marketplace provides the opportunity for approximately 160 tour directors, many of whom are recent graduates, to interview — in a formal setting — directly with representatives of the 36 to 40 tour companies attending Symposium looking for new hires. 

Attendees include such group-tour-industry giants as Globus, Collette, Tauck and Grand Circle. Many tour companies are dependent on the annual Marketplace event for filling their tour director slots. The bottom line remains consistent: as it has successfully been doing for over 25 years, the Symposium Marketplace matches tour companies with tour directors. 

One option for newly graduated tour directors is to get their feet wet in the travel field by working as local guides in the area where they reside, especially prior to attending their first Symposium Marketplace. Some choose being a local guide as a career. This allows them to remain primarily at home instead of being on the road. 

It is common for tour directors who are fully booked with assignments for the coming year to attend Symposium even though they are not participating in Marketplace. They attend for the purpose of networking with fellow tour directors and taking advantage of Symposium’s many continuing-education seminars, which allows them to stay current with travel trends. 

Some tour directors end up working exclusively for one company, while others work for two or more companies. Tour directors are hired by tour companies on a full-time, part-time or seasonal basis. Most are hired as employees, but some are utilized on an independent-contractor basis. Some tour companies conduct their own training programs with all new hires. 

Surveys of both tour companies and tour directors indicate that current tour director pay rates — including end-of-tour gratuities and, with some companies, commissions — are generally in the range of $275 to $350 per day while on tour. Group meals and most tour-related expenses typically are covered by the tour company, with each company having its own specific policies.

Fall, the busy season

September through November continues to be the busiest group tour season, so there is keen competition among tour companies to fill their fall tour director assignment rosters as early as possible.

Overall, the majority of tour director employment opportunities are for tours in the US, including Alaska and Hawaii, but overseas assignments are also offered by some companies.

Having a working knowledge of one or more foreign languages continues to be a valuable asset. Having broad background experience with domestic and international travel and/or living overseas prior to becoming a tour director is also a definite asset.

More so than in times past, many companies operate student tours of varying types. The summer-season demand for tour directors in this specialty area remains quite high, and some tour directors choose to work exclusively in this market. 

Getting started

 For any of you who wish to investigate the possibility of becoming a tour director, I suggest thoroughly familiarizing yourself with the ITMI website. Then call their San Francisco office with any and all questions. Anyone who submits an application is scheduled for a 45- to 60-minute telephone interview with senior ITMI training staff. 

A thick skin, a good sense of humor, abundant patience, humility, the ability and desire to lead, and a strong sense of self are prime characteristics of a successful tour director.

Tour directors must truly love unveiling and sharing the mysteries of the world with those in their charge. If this is you, working as a tour director or even, by choice, a local guide could truly be your calling.

As a former longtime tour director who is now happily leading tours again, I must advise that leading group tours can become addictive. Truthfully, however, I cannot imagine a more positive addiction. 

Contact Randy c/o ITN.